The climate crisis and the far-right in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has been marked as a potential climate haven for the increasing masses of people who will be fleeing the worsening climate crisis. Cliff Mass, a University of Washington climate scientist, has pointed out that the area will largely escape the worst of the intensifying disasters that will affect the rest of the continental United States: sea-level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, droughts. Indeed, some research, like a 2015 paper in Science, has found that the Pacific Northwest will actually benefit from climate change, with increased agricultural productivity and lower energy costs.

But this potential haven will have to reckon with the parallel movement of far-right extremists into the area, a trend that has been happening for several decades now, and which only seems to be escalating. In the 1970s, white nationalist and neo-Nazi circles came up with the Northwest Territorial Imperative, which saw the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as an ideal region to settle and construct a white separatist state. Militant groups, such as The Order, sprang up in the region, and carried out a series of robberies and killings to attempt to agitate for and fund a separatist movement. Meanwhile, more above-ground groups like the Aryan Nations set up compounds in remote areas of North Idaho, which is also where the infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge incident took place.

More recently, there has been a migration of far-right Christians into the region, via the American Redoubt movement, which was launched in 2011. Like the Northwest Territorial Imperative, American Redoubt sees the region as prime real estate, but for conservative and libertarian Christians and Jews, rather than whites only; it also explicitly excludes the coastal regions of Washington and Oregon, since a key element of its ideology is to prepare for the collapse of the United States and its infrastructure, and the resulting fallout in and around its major cities. According to a 2016 Economist article, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of families have answered the call and have relocated to the region. (Its not clear what any of these movements think about the many large Native American reservations in “their” territory, like Wind River in Wyoming, the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations in Montana, or Nez Perce reservation in Idaho).

American Redoubt is quieter, but more sophisticated than its neo-Nazi predecessor. It taps into a much wealthier crowd of people, as is clear from a 2016 Washington Post essay. The new settlers have quite a bit of disposable income, enough to put down hundreds of thousands of dollars on property, special bunkers, off-grid energy systems, food supplies, and ammunition; and their relocations are facilitated by a matrix of ideologically-aligned real estate firms and survivalist/prepper supply companies.

But while they aren’t robbing banks and getting into shootouts with the feds, they are certainly dragging regional politics even further to the right than it already was. The shenanigans of state representative Matt Shea are an excellent case-study of this (see Ep. 384 of The Dollop for a humorous podcast overview of this). Shea has represented a far-eastern legislative district of Washington, next to Spokane, for over 10 years, is a supporter of Redoubt, and has consistently pushed a far-right, Christian extremist message of securing the region against big government, communists, and Muslims. One of his pet projects is splitting Washington and making a new state, called Liberty, out of the rural eastern half.

Its clear that Shea does not envision a peaceful future for this movement. Last year, light was shed on a document he wrote that summed up his idea of Christian warfare, which included massacring all the males of communities that do not submit to the “Holy Army”; and within the last few weeks, his ties with a paramilitary training camp for Christian extremists were exposed. Shea, along with other far-right regional legislators, have also connected with various wings of the militia movement, especially via the Bundy family during their standoff with the feds in Nevada in 2014 over grazing rights. Shea and company later tried to intervene during the militia occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, and in fact, its likely that Shea helped plan various aspects of the occupation and the surrounding political theater.

Members of the Oath Keepers in Oregon

All of this far-right organization is bad news for climate change mitigation, even as the Democratic Party strengthens its hold on the state governments of Washington and Oregon. A couple months ago, Oregon Democrats tried to pass a cap-and-trade bill. Republicans, who are in the minority, couldn’t block the bill, but what they could do was deny quorum and prevent a vote from being held at all. So, they walked out of the capitol and went into hiding; and regional militia groups — including some that occupied the wildlife refuge in 2016 — declared their intent to defend the Republican legislators against any attempts to force them to return. An additional threat to rally at the capitol caused the building to be shut down for a day. Eventually, the bill was killed, and the Republican senators slunk back to work.

This fiasco paints a grim picture of the future, where far-right Christian and white nationalist settlers continue their merger with the far-right militia movement, and create a powerful armed bloc against climate mitigation and climate refugee resettlement. And the Democrats, of course, will be of little help, given how they are toothless and terrified of actually standing for anything. They were certainly unwilling to call the Republicans’ and militias’ bluff on how far they would go to shoot down the cap-and-trade bill.

All this must be taken seriously, but at the same time it is important to not overstate the current power or centrality of the far-right. The militias certainly played a role in disrupting and delaying the legislative process around the cap-and-trade bill; but in the end, it was not them or the Republican senators who ultimately killed cap-and-trade, but a successful lobbying effort by Boeing to peel off a Democratic senator from supporting the bill. The biggest and most potent force in climate crisis denialism remains mainstream neoliberal capitalism.

Either way, the fiasco demonstrates the need for the climate justice movement to become better organized, more aggressive, better connected with the abandoned rural heartlands where fascist forces are festering unchallenged, and take seriously the question of armed self-defense. Neither the big corporations nor the far-right will back down from undermining a progressive and adaptive future, and will likely grow more militant and violent as the contradictions of capitalism, climate, and borders become more and more strained. If this all sounds extreme, its only because we’ve gotten far too used to accepting the massive gap between our rhetoric and our actions on the climate crisis– and its beyond time we closed that gap. If the Pacific Northwest is a future climate haven, it’ll be one that was fought for.

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